COLUMN | The Metals Company: what lies behind the subsea mining pitch? – Part Two [Offshore Accounts]

The Metals Company's BIG-designed production vessel, a 216-meter ship that will run on carbon-neutral electrofuels. Its sunken deck will be covered with photovoltaic solar panels. (Photo: BIG)
The Metals Company's BIG-designed production vessel, a 216-meter ship that will run on carbon-neutral electrofuels. Its sunken deck will be covered with photovoltaic solar panels. (Photo: BIG)

We return once again to the issue of subsea mining this week. This means we can't offer any insight into the tragic loss of the Afcons Infrastructure work barge P305, which sank 35 nautical miles off Mumbai on May 17 during Cyclone Tauktae, whilst chartered to India's state oil company Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). There were 186 survivors, but 75 men are dead and missing, and the chances of finding any further survivors now are very low.

The sinking of P305 is the worst offshore disaster since the explosion on the Piper Alpha platform in the UK North Sea in July 1988, and it is the worst ever in the history of offshore exploration in South Asia. Angry and grieving relatives have demanded answers for what the vessel was doing in the path of the tropical storm – exactly the same questions that were asked in the sinking of the tug Bourbon Rhode in a storm in the Atlantic (here), and after the loss of the liftboat Seacor Power, which sank in a squall off Louisiana last month (here).

Why do crews end up in harm's way in today's era of accurate satellite weather forecasting?

Blame game begins with barge master

Afcons management has issued a statement that the captain is conveniently to blame for the tragedy (reported in the Times of India here). The Times also reported here that Mumbai Police have now issued a First Information Report – which includes charges of "causing death by negligence" – against the master of the unit, Captain Rakesh Ballav. He is one of those still missing.

So, anything we write this week pales into insignificance compared to the horrific loss of life in this unnecessary and completely preventable tragedy. But we have an important topic to cover, nonetheless.

Why does subsea mining matter?

It is worth investigating the revolutionary claims coming out of The Metals Company. Firstly because the company has a market value of around US$3 billion, which makes it more valuable than nearly every offshore vessel owner in the world. Secondly, because, if CEO Gerard Barron is successful with his plans, within a decade, much of the global mining industry will have been completely upended by this marine challenger company.

Potential game-changer in so many ways

Additionally, the economies of several tiny Pacific Island states will be economically transformed by royalty payments from subsea mining, if The Metals Company is to be believed. For Nauru, the Kingdom of Tonga and Kiribati, all impoverished microstates, the chance to partner with The Metals Company could be a huge opportunity, if it keeps its promises (see here).

The International Seabed Authority will also be handing out vast sums of royalty payments to combat global poverty, allegedly in a transparent and non-corrupt manner, whilst thousands of hectares of the abyssal plain will have been harvested for millions of tonnes of polymetallic nodules. This has significant consequences for huge areas of the deep-water Pacific and all life in those ecosystems, which are not at all well understood at this time.

This all matters immensely for the marine environment of the Clarion Clipperton Zone and the many species dwelling there, for the Pacific states, and for the development of mining elsewhere in the world, both ashore and at sea.

The company's plans also cover the transformation of terrestrial ports and metal processing. If we believe Mr Barron and his architects, industrial smelting just got safe, green and sexy.

Is what is proposed realistic and plausible?

Last week (here), we fact-checked many of the statements that Mr Barron made in a video interview with a Swiss banker here.

We now look at the company's methodology for the deep ocean mining and mineral processing, which was announced in a breathless and lavishly illustrated press release here.

This announcement covers the designs for seafloor mineral collector robots, for carbon-neutral mother ships, which will be deployed to consolidate and store the polymetallic nodules, and the allegedly waste-free metals processing and recycling plants where the raw materials from the ocean floor will be refined into pure metals for electric vehicle batteries.

Not the usual suspects

When you think of companies that are transformative in marine engineering, vessel construction, and new offshore concepts backed by solid practical experience, you might think of the Ulstein Group in Norway, or its compatriot Vard, or Damen or Royal IHC in the Netherlands. If you were looking at specialised design houses for new subsea concepts, you might consider Salt Ship Design, Knud E Hansen, or even Keppel of Singapore as well.

These are all companies with strong backgrounds in vessel design, subsea innovation, and maritime technology (If we haven't mentioned your company on this list, please don't write in and complain. It wasn't a deliberate slight.).

But rather than using a company that might, like, know about marine stuff, it looks like The Metals Company has had enough of experts. Instead, it chose the triumph of form over substance, and went with BIG – the Bjarke Ingels Group, a Danish company that describes itself as an "acclaimed global architecture firm," but that has no apparent experience in designing ships or subsea equipment on its website.

BIG, however, has plenty of experience designing ski slopes on top of Nordic waste incinerators (here). We don't want to imply yet that this aesthetically pleasing trash dump is where some of the concepts could perhaps end up.

BIG visions for Barron

Together BIG and The Metals Company claim they will, "remake conventional metal production for the twenty-first century." That's a pretty big and bold claim given that the current market cap of the top twelve mining companies is around US$500 billion (here).

The Metals Company says that, "BIG delivered an integrated suite of assets that work together to lift nodules off the seafloor and up to a purpose-built production vessel, transfer them to a hydrodynamic shuttle carrier, and onward to a metallurgical plant designed to transform an urban port site into a battery materials innovation and community hub, set within a regenerative coastal landscape."

BIG actually delivered some conceptual drawings of the assets, which leave an awful lot of questions unanswered. Let's look at what these concepts involve.

Robotic collection of the nodules

<em>The Metals Company's BIG-designed robotic collector (Photo: The Metals Company)</em>
The Metals Company's BIG-designed robotic collector (Photo: The Metals Company)

BIG has designed a robotic collector, which The Metals Company claims will "minimise disturbance while gathering polymetallic nodules from the abyssal seafloor. Directing a jet of seawater across the tops of the nodules, the collector gently frees them from sediment and lifts them on compressed air bubbles to a production vessel at the surface."

"To collect the nodules, we have designed a light-touch, robotic collector vehicle that aims a jet of seawater across the tops of the rocks to gently pry them from the sediment. Part of our design for future collectors includes a buoyant, hydrodynamic shell with an extended lip to minimise seafloor compaction and reduce and redirect the dust plume kicked up during nodule collection," said Daniel Sundlin, partner at BIG and partner in charge of the collaboration with The Metals Company, in the press release.

Not a dredger

Very deliberately any notions that this elegant piece of subsea equipment might be a "dredge" are artfully avoided. This is a "light-touch" machine with an emphasis on its "gentle" nature.

But the practical difficulties of operating such a machine are not explained and it seems that "designed" means "has drawn a pretty picture," rather than, "has provided an engineering design."

DEME, the Belgian contractor (which specialises in dredging) is already testing a much uglier and more industrial-looking device for nodule collection from Belgium's De Meyer Group in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, as we covered here.

Practical questions

So, the obvious question is, where will all the energy for pumping water to gently free the nodules come from for BIG's design, let alone the compressed air to blow millions of nodules to the surface come from, and how will the module collector be replenished with power and air?

Between blowing gentle jacuzzi-like jets of soothing water onto the nodules, will it also have a "sucking" function to bring the nodules into the machine and into the pipe, where the compressed air will "gently" lift them the four kilometres to the surface?

The initial collection unit that my colleague Andrew Baird covered in 2018 (here) was very big on sucking, as you can see from the multiple Hoover-like nozzle design, which DeepGreen used in its publicity material at the time. Sucking unfortunately raises the issue of "by-catch" of any marine life unfortunate to wander close to the intake of the vacuum pump, and also raises the issue of sediment dispersal in the marine environment.

And we have to assume that this compressed air lift occurs without any blockages, flexible hose damage, or kinks.

How will the robotic collector's batteries be charged or power provided to the unit, and compressed air topped up?

Deeper water than the deepest oil and gas

Note that the Pacific abyssal plain under 4,000 metres and more of water is significantly deeper than the existing deepest offshore oil production, Shell's Turritella FPSO in the Gulf of Mexico, which operates in a water depth of 2,900 metres. This provides comparable operations using continuous production of fluids via flowlines, with the wells controlled by umbilicals from the FPSO like the robotic collector would be.

Total is reportedly preparing to drill a new record offshore well in a water depth of 3,628 metres off the coast of Angola using the drillship Maersk Voyager after Covid delayed the campaign in 2020, but the proposed deepwater mining operations of The Metals Company are far deeper than anything that deepwater drilling rigs have attempted for oil and gas. Most of the ground-breaking ultra deepwater FPSOs off Brazil are actually moored around 2,200 metres, half the water depth where The Metals Company will be working. The technical challenges of this environment cannot be underestimated.

No doubt Mr Barron will say that this doesn't matter, and that deep sea drilling for science and research has been achieved in a water depth of 7,725 metres. However, it is clear that the demands of the polymetallic nodule collection in the Clarion Clipperton Zones go well beyond anything that the deepwater offshore oil and gas industry has painstakingly built up over decades of trial and error.

Liquid transfer over air?

Previous subsea mining concepts from the now defunct fumarole-hackers at Nautilus (which we covered here) envisaged pumping the mineral-rich slurry to the surface in liquid form. So, too, do the concepts of the Krypton Ocean Group, whose extensive designs for subsea mining equipment can be seen here.

But later in the release it becomes clear that BIG's drawings of its gentle collectors will not be in service for many years.

"The Metals Company's first-generation collector vehicle has been engineered and is currently being built by Allseas in the Netherlands to be deployed for testing early next year." No pictures of this actual unit that is under construction were provided.

So actually, none of the grandiose designs of BIG are relevant to any subsea nodule collection at this stage, when the first-generation collector has not even been tested and trialled on location.

The mother ship: WTF?

The spiel continues:

"Nodules are transported through a flexible hose at the top of the collector vehicle to a rigid riser pipe where they are lifted on compressed air bubbles ~ four kilometres up to the surface production vessel, a 216-metre-long ship that runs on carbon-neutral electrofuels, with a sunken deck that is covered with photovoltaic solar panels.  The streamlined design of the production vessel is driven by functionality. Equipment for nodule collection is strategically packed in the hull to minimise the size of the vessel and maximise operational efficiency. At scale, each production vessel would operate multiple collectors with additional maintenance capacity provided by a support vessel with a 'moon pool' for deploying and retrieving collector vehicles.

"BIG designed the production vessel as a 216-metre ship that runs on carbon-neutral electrofuels. Its sunken deck will be covered with photovoltaic solar panels."

We have already highlighted last week how this is a complete flight of fantasy, a ship powered by completely unproven electro-fuels, with no details of how it will discharge or store the nodules it receives, and with seemingly redundant solar panels that will probably be capable of perhaps powering the emergency lighting in the accommodation only. Or perhaps the solar electricity will be used to mine Bitcoin as this seems marginally more plausible than the concept BIG has produced.

But again, this doesn't matter, because what BIG has "designed" (a term completely unconnected to the underlying requirements for naval architecture) is years away.

Again, the release admitted that "The Metals Company's first production vessel is a deep-water drillship repurposed by Allseas to enable pilot nodule collection," and, again, no drawings or pictures of this existing unit that is undergoing conversion are actually produced.

Ten vessels, 40 million tonnes of nodules

However, the company states that "BIG's next-generation vessel design is central to The Metals Company's plans to scale to a fleet of 10 production vessels, enabling the provision of over 40 million tonnes of battery metals by 2050, enough to produce 280 million electric vehicles – a quarter of the global passenger car fleet."

We know that second-hand drillships can be bought for cents on the dollars today with massive power generation capacity and dynamic positioning systems for deepwater operations. If Allseas' unit is a success, surely The Metals Company would use "more of the same?"

I can see that the design is crucial to the marketing of the dream of subsea mining, not that it will have any practical application in the next five or six years.

Practically, 40 million tonnes of nodules collected between 2030 and 2050 by a fleet of ten vessels is highly implausible anyhow. It requires the continuous production of over 20 tonnes of nodules per ship every hour for twenty years, with every vessel operating continuously with zero downtime. Even if each ship operates ten robot collectors continuously all day every day for two decades, each of the hundred collectors must collect two tonnes of fist-sized nodules every hour, over 38 kilograms a minute, every minute for twenty years. Wow.

Shuttle carriers

It is clear that The Metals Company aims also to disrupt the bulk carrier industry, too, and revolutionise ship design there, too. Once again, bold claims seem to have a flimsy base.

"At full-scale operations, nodules will be transferred from the production vessels to shuttle carriers, whose X-bow design was chosen by BIG to deliver hyper-efficient, hydrodynamic ships to further assist The Metals Company in lowering the carbon footprint of its battery metals."

What's interesting here is that Ulstein's X-Bow is a registered trade mark, but BIG doesn't seem to have recognised the intellectual property, and nor does Ulstein appear to be involved in the design of the shuttle carriers, unless the company is bound by an NDA and has kept this out of the public domain.

It would be strange for an architecture company to be trumpeting its genius in hyper-efficient, hydrodynamic ship design if an actual, credible ship designer had been used in the project.

Korean researchers had published a paper in 2017, which did credit Ulstein for the X-Bow design, on a possible bulk carrier with an axe bow, a paper called Bow hull-form optimisation in waves of a 66,000DWT bulk carrier here. So far no such ship has been built, to my knowledge, and Ulstein makes no reference in its publicity to any partnership with The Metals Company, of which I am aware.

So, rather like the mother ship and the fleet of jacuzzi robots, we must assume that perhaps BIG's shuttle carrier is just another back of the envelope sketch, designed to "wow" gullible investors. The aim is clear: to create a perception that subsea mining is more akin to the luxury yacht business than the dirty, heavy industrial terrestrial mining business with its ugly dump trucks and excavators.

But this is empty puffery.

The best is yet to come!

<em>Rendering of a proposed nodule processing facility (Photo: The Metals Company)</em>
Rendering of a proposed nodule processing facility (Photo: The Metals Company)

"Once at port, the nodules are offloaded onto a conveyor and into a portside processing plant – designed by BIG as a sustainable, performative and social campus in a regenerative landscape that turns conventional metallurgy on its head," The Metals Company reported.

At this point, what little connection to reality the release had utterly disappears.

"Deep-water ports around the world are often degraded ecosystems unwelcoming to local communities. We asked BIG to reimagine what a metals-processing facility could be, to have it integrate with — even remediate — the urban coastal environment," said The Metals Company Chairman and CEO, Gerard Barron.

"The result is a breath-taking innovation complex that will transform an industrial port into a community-based hub for the electric vehicle revolution," the company added.

Ports are unwelcoming to local communities because of the ISPS Code. Generally speaking, major ports don't hold jumble sales and coffee mornings on their quaysides, because access is restricted for safety and security reasons, and is restricted under international conventions, obviously.

But between hosting choral sessions of kumbaya for local schools, "The Metals Company requires processing facilities to offload nodules near deep-water ports. These are typically degraded, brownfield sites. BIG designed a circular, zero-solid-waste metallurgical plant to contain both pyrometallurgical processing and hydrometallurgical refining steps in a single facility."

Both these processes have highly toxic outputs, which the architects at BIG seem to wilfully ignore. Pyrometallurgical processing involves burning the base material at near 1,500°C, with the emissions of toxic fluorine compounds released during smelting, as we covered last week.

Hydrometallurgical refining involves the use of vast quantities of caustic reagents such as hydrochloric, nitric, and sulphuric acids, and hydrogen peroxide, as we covered in the footnote.

Toxic gases and toxic liquids would result in a "zero-solid waste" production plant, but this is, as usual, disingenuous. No sane individual would want an industrial plant running these processes near their housing or in their "community," and most governments will demand struct environmental protection measures due to the highly poisonous chemicals used and produced in the battery metals production and recycling process.

With its lovely architectural designs of pretty buildings nesting in lush, verdant surroundings, The Metals Company claims that "this effort will transform its urban port site into a battery materials innovation and community hub set within a regenerative coastal landscape."

This will be feature "offices, visitor-centric experiences, and an innovation centre. The company envisions multiple facilities spread across three continents and a number of brownfield sites are currently under consideration. These plants would in time be retooled to recycle battery cathodes at end-of-life, closing the loop on the battery metals supply chain."

Conclusion: this is fantasy

We agree with The Metals Company that "The global energy system needs to undergo its most profound change in centuries to realise a world run exclusively on renewable sources." But selling illusions is not the way to do it.

"We're remaking how society gets, uses and ultimately re-uses the base metals which form the foundation of the clean energy economy," said Barron. "BIG has delivered these radical, low-impact designs to help us remake an industry. Now the exciting question is, which port will we transform first?"

Answer the real questions

No, the real question is what is really going to happen? How will you protect the marine environment? How will you gather the nodules in an economically viable manner? How will you transport them to the surface and then to a port? How will they be processed safely and cleanly?

The Metals Company and BIG have deliberately chosen to provide unrealistic but attractive-looking visions of what the subsea mining industry will look like. Subsea mining is an industry just starting on its journey. It makes one question the credibility of The Metals Company in the marine industry, and the credibility of BIG as a serious industrial design house.

Maybe asset managers and investors will be wowed by these drawings. Many in the marine industry will be rightfully sceptical.

Show us realistic plans of how this will actually work. It's too important not to.

Feedback from The Metals Company

So, we were pleased to receive feedback from The Metals Company in response to last week's analysis (here).

Did they respond with some robust, peer-reviewed, scientific papers showing that the ecology of the Clarion Clipperton Zone would be left untouched by their proposed mining activity?

Did they show how they plan to mine forty million tonnes of battery metals from over 4,000 metres down on the seabed, with some realistic cost estimates to show that their scheme is economically viable?

Did they provide some studies to demonstrate that the area where they mine will quickly recover from their activities?

No, no, and no.

The surface of the moon and Mars is the battle?

Instead, they chose to take issue with our fact-check of the CEO's claims that it is wrong to say that we know less about the deep ocean than the moon or Mars. This looks like a diversionary tactic to distract us from our analysis, and is a criticism which, quite frankly, misses the point.

The Metals Company sent us a link (here) to a podcast, which features a pugnacious attack on the idea that the deep ocean is a relatively unmapped and little understood ecological system. Dr Alan Jamieson, a world expert on the hadal zone (water deeper than 6,000 metres) gets quite overwrought in his defence that the moon and Mars are not the same as the deep sea, and that the atmosphere and the sea of the earth make it difficult to map seabed, unlike mapping the surface of the moon or Mars.

Dr Jamieson seems to take it personally that ocean scientists should start conversations by saying that they don't know everything about the seabed, and he feels that the "statement is stupid."

"We declare deep sea explorers as losers," said the man who took a submersible into the Marianas Trench, suggesting perhaps that he has a chip on his shoulder, criticising "unfair analogies."

"Comparing these two disciplines seems a total injustice to deep sea explorers," he continued. "These constant space analogies are self-harming," and "people probably don't care about the deep-sea because we tell them we don't know anything about it."

I would observe that neuroscientists often say similar things about our understanding of the human brain, and astronomers use similar statements on dark matter, without anyone dissing those disciplines.

"Multiple grant applications and multiple papers cite the moon analogies," concluded his colleague Dr Thomas Linley, who then decided that it "is not only out of date, but is even not applicable."

We stand by our fact check

So, we wrote to Professor Alex Rogers himself, whom we had cited to disagree with Gerard Barron. Professor Rogers confirmed that he felt we were right to fact-check The Metals Company's CEO on this point. Indeed, Professor Rogers' excellent 2019 book The Deep features this very analogy here. Professor Rogers wrote to us:

"With respect to the statement about knowing more about the surface of Mars and the Moon than the bottom of the ocean, this is demonstrably true in the sense of ocean mapping. We have mapped ~ 20 per cent of the ocean floor with a good degree of resolution (even with the Seabed 2030 programme) whereas Mars and the Moon have been mapped in their entirety – why, because the ocean is opaque to remote sensing from satellites. This means it must be mapped using acoustics deployed by ships and autonomous platforms. We hope to have this done by 2030, but we'll see."

Pierre Dutrieux, assistant research professor in Ocean and Climate Physics at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory came to the same conclusion here.

So, enough distraction and diversion.

The real facts that need checking

In his reply to us, Professor Rogers made the point that the biggest questions around subsea mining remain unanswered:

"Any disturbance to these ecosystems lasts a very long time. The nodules themselves take millions of years to grow and so once removed they are not returning for a very long time. Sediments are resuspended and compacted by simulated dredging for nodules. The biological communities in them are disturbed with alterations in abundance and composition of species. Organic carbon content is changed, etc.

"There is a high diversity of species living in these ecosystems. Much of this diversity is in the form of small organisms such as worms and crustaceans that live in or on the sediments. We have also discovered larger organisms living on sediment (e.g. sea cucumbers) and attached to the nodules themselves, which form the vast majority of hard substrata. These animals include sponges, anemones and other organisms. So, the nodules turn out to be a significant habitat in themselves.

"We still do not understand basic information about these biological communities such as how they vary spatially, what levels of connectivity there are and over what distance and what the geographic range of species are. We also have little idea about reproduction and recruitment of larvae into these communities, things that may be important when considering recover from mining (at least for sediment dwelling organisms). All this adds up to a poor understanding of how deep-sea communities will be affected by deep-sea mining especially when you consider the very large scale to which this industrial activity could grow.

"This is why scientists like me and policy makers are calling for a 10-year moratorium on marine mining," he concluded.

Rather than quibbling the relative merits of Martian exploration versus the Marianas trench mapping, The Metals Company would do best to address these basic points of the environmental impact of their activities.

Background reading

For an alternative take on the ecological impact of ocean mining, see Mining Watch's October 2019 article here. This highlights how the head of the International Seabed Authority appears in a promotional video for the precursor company to The Metals Company, DeepGreen, seemingly without noticing that cheerleading for a licence holder might be a conflict of interest in the regulation of the subsea mining industry.

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